I wanted to share some things I’ve learned from participating in both sides of the contest circuit. As you know, there are some great writing contests out there. This is the way many chapters earn funds to provide members with speakers and workshops throughout the year.
I have been fortunate enough to final in some of these contests and I have also paid my dues by judging quite a few. I have taken the RWA judges training both in person with a local chapter and through another group that offered it online.
First of all, let me say that putting on a contest is a great big deal. There are coordinators for the various categories. There are judges and final judges to be committed and the logistics for all this is an exercise in chaos. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of all the wonderful volunteers, everything pulls together and the chaos becomes beautifully orchestrated music. At the end, the exhausted volunteers sit down, raise a glass and vow that next year will be even better.
There are so many contests, how do you choose which to enter? The cost of entering most contests generally runs between $25 to $30. Most of us don’t have an unlimited contest budget and must choose where to invest our fees. For me, it’s all about the final judges. Go to the contest site and scroll down to the place where the final judges are listed. If you are lucky enough to final, your work will be read by one or more of these people. You get a double dividend when there is both an agent judge and an editor judge. If the judge is an editor, look at their publishing house to see if they publish what you write. If the judge is an agent, check them out at agentquery.com to see if they represent work similar to yours. There are also contests that offer cash prizes for the winners and finalists. Money is always nice.
The essential element for serious contesters is having a polished and completed novel that is ready for submission. Don’t send the first draft or a work in progress. Before even thinking about entering contests you must first finish the book. Then you have to follow the contest rules as to what format and how many pages to submit. Thankfully, most contests are online and you can save all that ink and paper and standing in line at the P.O. to mail it.
Another great benefit of entering contests is for the judge’s feedback. If you don’t final, you will hopefully receive not only your scores, but individual feedback from 2-3 first round judges. Admittedly, there are some judges who just won’t “get” your work or will write idiotic comments to the effect that they don’t ever read your genre, which becomes obvious when you check the scores. If you get this kind of judge, please tell the contest coordinator who will be less likely to invite this person to judge their next contest. For the most part, the feedback will be helpful. The judge is a reader and they are reacting like a reader so take their comments objectively and use what makes sense to you. I would always suggest that you polish your first 35 pages to a high sheen before you consider entering contests. You can do this by careful editing on your own and by running it by your critique group and/or beta readers who will give you honest feedback. No, your mom doesn’t count.
You must try to present something that is contest worthy. When I judge an entry, I always read it twice. The first time, I read it as a reader and the second time as a judge. It’s easy to pick up on typos or grammatical errors but more important to look at the content. As a judge, I am always aware that this entrant has paid a fee and put their heart into their work. I feel that the least I owe them is a thorough evaluation and feedback to help them polish it. Most of the entries I receive are really good stories that have been well developed. When I read something that just isn’t working, it’s usually one of three things:
1. The story doesn’t start in the right place. The writer has spent several pages of blah-blah-blah which has failed to engage me. I really don’t care if she walked down the stairs and straightened her apron on the first page unless something huge happens to jerk her out of that safe little world on that same page. The greatest gift I can give these writers is to highlight the area where the story actually starts and give them some feedback about this.
2. There is a ton of back story that dulls down the story, slows the pace and makes my eyes roll up in my head. I know it’s important and it adds to the character and motivation, but don’t dump it all up front. Dribble it in as you go along. Tease me. It is most important for something to happen in the first few pages to hook the reader. This is called the “inciting incident”. If nothing is happening, why am I reading it? This also goes for copious shovelfuls of setting. Give me enough setting so I can tell where we are and other important things such as, is it midnight or rush hour? Are we in a hospital room or slogging across the dessert and then please, make something happen.
3. Too many characters are introduced and it’s hard to keep track of them. Particularly in paranormal, some writers tend to toss half a dozen characters on page one and they all have unpronounceable names and I can’t keep them straight. I am kind of picky about names in that they should at least fit the character. Think of Rumplestiltskin. I offended one of my critique partners when I didn’t care for the name of her hero, because it made me picture Rumplestiltskin instead of Brad Pitt or Antonio Banderas. It all speaks to characterization. It’s also a problem is you have Carol and Cassie and Caitlin interacting. Please help the reader keep them straight.
The characteristics of a good entry are the same as the characteristics of any good fiction. Unique voice, strong characters, complex plot, natural dialogue, setting, introspection, conflict, motivation, etc… Try to start and end each scene with a strong hook because one of the frequent questions on a score sheet is, do you want to read more?
If you do get that exciting call or email announcing that you finaled in a contest, celebrate large. Call your friends. Post on your local writing loops. Do a virtual happy dance on your FaceBook page, Tweet, etc. . . And then cross your fingers because your entry will now go on to be read by the final judge(s) and you may garner a coveted request for a full or partial of your manuscript. Good luck to all entrants. I hope your future holds many finals.